But it got bad there for a while. He sank his boat, almost drowned, and – nearly as bad as drowning in his eyes – came within a hair’s breadth of losing the product of a day’s work.
Meche is an up-and-coming politician, a fiery environmental activist and an unreconstructed Cajun. He’s on the Town Council here and is prominent on the boards of several organizations promoting the harvest of wild crawfish. He has skills valuable to the petrochemical industry and occasionally works in and around the plants, but like many of the descendants of those Cajuns who lived in and off of the swamps, Meche prefers to make his living from the bounty of nature.
So one day last week he was out in his crawfish skiff pulling a trawl across Vermilion Bay. He dragged for an hour, caught about 50 pounds of mixed-sized shrimp, and was dragging again while he culled.
An hour later he was still culling and still dragging when a thunderstorm popped up over Marsh Island to the southwest. Some of the shrimp were running small and he was determined to sort them properly for the market.
Another thunderstorm popped up to the west. Then the two merged, and Meche felt the first breeze that told him things were about to change for the worse. Time to quit culling and pull in the trawl, he decided.
Vermilion Bay is shallow, which makes it dangerous in a storm. The waves come steep and close together. When he took the first one over the stern, Meche decided to cut his trawl loose and come back for it after the storm subsided.
A shrimper in a small boat is most vulnerable when he’s picking up his trawl. He must turn his bow downwind in order to keep a strain on the bag, and the combination of all that weight in the back and following seas can lead to sudden swamping.
Crawfish skiffs, designed to navigate a flooded forest, are notoriously unstable in rough water.
Like a man with eight hands, he was bailing and trying to release the net at the same time. He already had one board in. It was just a matter of popping open two quick-release shackles. Another wave came over. And another. His bilge pump was going crazy. He freed one board and hauled in the other only to find it fouled with a derelict crab trap. And while he was messing with that, here came the final wave.
The boat started sinking underneath him.
“My life jacket was in the bow, under the hatch. I half-crawled, half-swam up and got it. I put it on in the water.”
The motor was resting on the bottom, the bow just poking above the surface, buoyed by trapped air.
“Shore was about a half a mile away. There was a platform about the same distance. I didn’t know whether to hang onto the boat or swim for it. Even if I made it to shore, I’d be stuck there until somebody came by.”
There was not another boat in sight at first. Then Meche, bobbing in the waves, caught sight of a couple of small shrimp boats. It was Kenneth Usie and Ronnie Courville.
“I knew they would turn around and make another drag, so I started swimming toward where they had passed. It wasn’t easy. Waves were hitting me in the face. I had to hold my breath. When I was down between them, I couldn’t see a thing. Then I caught a cramp in one leg. I was basically just dog-paddling.”
Then the other leg cramped up and Meche gave up on trying to go anywhere. He was too busy just keeping his head above water.
Usie spotted ice chests and a gas tank floating and relaying the information to Courville.
“Something bad has happened out here,” Usie said.
“Jody Meche is out here,” Courville returned. “He must’ve sunk.”
The two shrimpers turned toward the floating debris.
Spitting salt water and gasping for breath, Meche tried to hail them. Finally he got Courville’s attention.
“What, y’all just wanted to see how long I can swim?” Meche joked, still treading water.
Though unstable in rough water, a flat-bottomed boat has the redeeming virtue of being able to plane back to the surface under tow. They managed to get the boat bailed out and back on its trailer.
With the help of Catahoula crawfisherman Mike Bienvenu, Meche flushed his outboard motor and got it running again. Someone else in that can-do community of commercial fishermen has come up with a way to repair the motor’s tiller, damaged in the salvage operation.
Meche drowned his iPhone and lost his wallet with a couple hundred in cash and all his licenses, but in the floating ice chests was his catch.
“These are the most expensive shrimp in Louisiana,” he joked. “And they are not for sale.”